Want to WFH in another country? Here's the safest way to do it during a pandemic

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A close friend of mine is thinking about moving to Mexico. They have a thriving online business and are considering working from there for the next few months. Even though it might be a watered-down adventure because of the pandemic, it seems like a good time to live in a new place — especially if that place is not both literally and metaphorically on fire. If you have the privilege of working from home now, does it really matter where home is? This new normal could be an opportunity for a change of scenery and creative inspiration. While it can be tricky, there is a safe way to WFH in another country, even during these precarious times.

“There is increased exposure to COVID-19 with travel,” says Kristin Hughes, an emergency physician in Chicago and founder of Paseo, a company that helps people with travel healthcare planning. “It is not the most ideal time to travel, but it can be done safely if you have a good plan in place,” Hughes says. So, for now, being a digital nomad does not mean jumping quickly from place to place, it means finding a new place to work, planning your trip carefully, and staying put for a while.

Hughes recommends taking a worst-case-scenario approach to planning that forces us to be realistic about our adventures. It’s really easy to drop into a full-on Christmas in Paris fantasy and forget that Americans can’t actually go to France right now without getting a certificate that deems their travel essential.

The first thing digital nomads now need to do when they’re thinking about jetting off somewhere new is figure out whether there are any travel restrictions to the place they want to go. Some countries — like Mexico and the Dominican Republic— are welcoming Americans with no restrictions, but some require a 14-day quarantine period — like Italy and Hungary. If you want to do touristy things when you travel, you should also probably check how open to tourists your destination is.

This feels like a given but you should monitor COVID-19 rates in the place you want to visit. That being said, no one knows exactly what a second (or, sigh, third) wave might look like anywhere right now. And if you are in a high risk group, you don’t want to go someplace that is as riddled with coronavirus as the U.S. is right now.

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Hughes recommends contacting an English-speaking physician in the country you are traveling to discuss the COVID-19 situation in their location. Ideally, she says, travelers can establish a relationship with a doctor who could guide them should an emergency situation arise.

Also, although our healthcare system is notoriously inaccessible and currently overburdened, it’s also pretty modern; Hughes reminds me that Americans should be aware that the facilities in rural settings often don't have the medical capabilities that cities have. It may seem morbid, but Hughes recommends thinking about whether the hospitals in the area you’re traveling to have an adequate supply of ventilators in case you get sick.

If you’ve already figured out where you’re going and identified the restrictions involved, it’s still important to map out the steps to getting there, Hughes says. You can enroll in the U.S. Embassy’s (free) Smart Traveler program and they will send you text updates about health and safety conditions in your destination. She also recommends driving to your destination if you can. If that’s not feasible, buy the shortest flights and ones with the fewest layovers as possible. The easier it is to get in and out of a location, the better. If you can book a whole row to yourself, definitely do it.

Once you book a flight or plan a route, you need to get all your personal health affairs in order. “Pre-departure planning is paramount,” Hughes says. It’s easy to forget that there are still other viruses out there, but there are, so get educated on the bigger picture situation where you’re headed. Get any immunizations you need and make sure you have enough of any necessary prescriptions and a solid first aid kit, Hughes says.

In addition to prepping for travel and temporary relocations, you’ll want to plan solutions to obstacles that might arise. Hughes says that you need to ask yourself what you would do if you got sick abroad. Even if you don’t get severely ill and require hospitalization, you should probably consider whether you would be able to quarantine effectively in a new place and whether your health or travel insurance will cover non-emergency care.

We also need to consider our squad at home, if we’re thinking about leaving the nest. “What happens if a loved one in the United States gets sick — is there a plan in place for someone to take care of them if you cannot get back?” she asks. In a moment in which we are all beginning to realize our profound interdependence, it’s a good idea to make sure that you’re not leaving someone you love in the lurch.

This is a lot to chew on when the whole digital nomad lifestyle is basically predicated on fun and freedom, but the world is in a state of chaos right now, and we have to take special precautions if we want to pursue travel of any type. When I told Hughes about my friend’s potential move to Mexico, she said, “That’s so cool,” which proves that she’s not anti-pandemic travel. She’s just against carelessly planned pandemic travel. She says that if someone can think through all these hard situations and formulate a plan, they’ll be more comfortable — and safer — traveling.